Now girls as young as five year old think they have to be slim to be popular
London Telegraph | March 8, 2005
By Sarah Womack
Girls as young as five are unhappy with their bodies and want to be thinner, according to a study which blames peer pressure in a child's early years at school.
Most girls thought that being slim would make them more popular, claimed the research in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. They would also have no hesitation in dieting if they gained weight. The study was conducted among five- to eight-year-olds in South Australia, but experts said last night that British children felt "paranoid" about their weight - partly because of the Government's anti-obesity message.
Dr Andrew Hill, of Leeds University Medical School, said research among more than 200 eight-year-olds showed a high awareness of the campaign against obesity. "Children have absorbed anti-fat messages loud and clear", he said. "To get people to listen about a condition, you talk it up, and we have got obesity on the health agenda.
"We have upped the ante, adding to negativity about being fat, but we need to be careful now so people are not paranoid about being fat.
"We want people who are overweight to do something about it. We don't want to terrorise youngsters."
The UK Eating Disorders Association said it was known that children as young as eight had been diagnosed with eating disorders and there may have been instances in younger children.
A spokesman said: "Low self-esteem is a major contributory factor of eating disorders: media images, peer pressure and family situations can also affect people. We are concerned but not surprised that school children as young as six are affected by them."
The latest research was conducted by academics at Flinders University among 81 girls. They were asked what they thought about their peers' level of unhappiness with their bodies and if they discussed body shape.
Almost half (46.9 per cent) wanted to be thinner, and 45.7 per cent said they would go on a diet if they gained weight. Among five-year-olds, 28.6 per cent wished they were thinner. After being shown pictures of a girl before and after putting on weight, 35 per cent of the girls thought her eating habits were to blame, and 28.6 per cent said she should go on a diet. Around 71 per cent of girls aged seven said they wanted to be thinner.
The report's authors said: "Body dissatisfaction and dieting awareness develop over the first two years of schooling."
Most of the girls believed that being thin would make them more likeable, although few said they discussed their bodies with friends. Their ideas about their friends' unhappiness with their bodies were linked to their own unhappiness with their bodies.
"It is therefore possible that peer transmissions of ideals about appearance could also occur through comments when trying on clothes or talking about pop stars when watching television," the report said.
Deanne Jade, of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, said the research should be treated cautiously because children often picked out a thin image as desirable when shown one by researchers but had no problem making friends with children of all shapes and sizes at school.
"What we do know, however, is that by the time they reach adulthood, 95 per cent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies and seven out of 10 girls have been on a diet," she said.